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Both sides lacking specifics in battle for House leadership


My inner political junkie has had a tough time getting interested in the power struggle in the state House of Representatives between Speaker Calvin Say and a band of 17 Democratic dissidents.

Missing from both camps has been any semblance of an agenda spelling out what difference it makes to the people of Hawaii as to which side wins.

In the absence of clear policy differences, it becomes a cheesy fight over style, personal power of individual legislators and whose special-interest patrons get served first.

Calvin Say is a known quantity after surviving as speaker for a record 11 years, and he has some admirable qualities.

He has championed fiscal discipline, challenged costly public employee benefits and golden-calf tax exemptions, and has shown an independent streak by standing up to major Democratic Party powers such as U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, former Gov. Ben Cayetano and the public worker unions.

In fact, the current revolt gained traction when the public unions went after Say for opposing a general excise tax increase to take care of state workers, and some gay rights groups unfairly blamed him for the Democrats’ lack of votes to override former Gov. Linda Lingle’s veto of civil unions.

But Say’s run as speaker has hardly been a testament to legislative achievement; not a single signature accomplishment during his long tenure comes to mind.

The dissident group has some of the brightest young talent in the Legislature, but they’ve failed to put forth a cohesive agenda for change that lays out what they’d do differently on the major issues that face us if they were in charge.

I’ve put the question directly to several of them in recent years and have never gotten back more than generalities about openness and transparency. Nor can you glean much about the dissidents’ policy agenda from the occasional issues they’ve taken a stand on in the last few sessions.

Their one public letter to Say was all generalities.

"Improving public schools, reforming government, protecting our environment, and safeguarding civil rights are important to Hawaii’s future, yet many of these initiatives have been stalled or derailed," they said, with no specifics on what they’d do to get solutions unstuck.

It’s not as if they’ve been entirely powerless to affect these issues; among the dissident leaders, Rep. Roy Takumi has been education chairman the last eight years, Rep. Scott Saiki did a stint as majority leader and Rep. Sylvia Luke chaired the powerful Judiciary Committee for a time.

When the answer is "Who knows?" to the question of who has the best ideas for solving our weak economy, inefficient government and underachieving schools, the public response to their drama is bound to be, "Who cares?"

David Shapiro can be reached at or


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